Saturday, July 31, 2010

Nate Parker: The “Blood Done Sign My Name” Interview

with Kam Williams

Headline: Is Nate the Next Denzel?

Nate Parker was born in Norfolk, Virginia on November 18, 1979 to a 17 year-old single-mom who never married his biological father. He and his younger sisters were raised mostly in Bath, Maine which is where his stepfather was stationed by the U.S. Air Force.
Nate only started acting after graduating from the University of Oklahoma, when he was spotted by a talent scout while waiting for a friend at an audition. Signed by an agent, Parker immediately moved to Los Angeles where he soon landed work in commercials and bit parts on several TV shows before he found his breakout role as Hakim in the desegregation drama Pride.
He has since starred in other sagas with civil rights themes such as The Great Debaters and The Secret Life of Bees, and later this year he’ll be playing a Tuskegee Airman in the WWII epic Red Tails. Here, Nate talks about his current release, Blood Done Sign My Name, a bio-pic about the rise to prominence of a young Ben Chavis, who went on to become Chairman of the NAACP, in the wake of a lynching in North Carolina. He also discusses his preference to make socially-significant projects.

Kam Williams: Nate, thanks so much for the time.
Nate Parker: Of course, any time, brother.
KW: What interested you in doing Blood Done Sign My Name to play an important civil rights figure like Ben Chavis?
NP: To put it plainly, it was the fact that it fit my model. I prefer to make movies which not only have a message for “then” but a message for “now.” Here was this 22 year-old brother who had no idea what was about to happen, and yet, when it did, he stepped into it in a way which changed an entire community. There was leadership and a sense of accountability in this young man, and those are qualities I can talk about in 2010. So, when I read the script, I knew that it could serve as a tool in the present for some of what ails our community.
KW: How did you prepare for the role?
NP: I read everything I could about the period, including the book the film is based on.
The book was incredible because it deals with racism, white supremacy and the black inferiority complex in a real way, and it illustrates how they can be a cancer on a community.
KW: And how does that relate to today?
NP: I look around today, and I see the Prison-Industrial Complex, and how 50% of our brothers and sisters are behind bars, and how half of us are dropping out of school. And I look at the escalating HIV rate in the black community. These are issues now, and we need leaders to address those crises in the way that Ben Chavis was effective at inspiring a whole generation of kids.
KW: Is it true that your showbiz career got started when you were spotted by a talent scout?
NP: Yeah, I was working in computers when this stranger approached me out of the blue, saying I should become an actor. I took it as a gift from God, because I had been praying for clarity about what He wanted me to do, since I wasn’t happy in computers. So, I gave my employer notice, and moved to L.A. in two weeks. It was definitely Divine intervention. And six year’s later, here I am, and Jon Simmons, the guy who signed me up, is still my manager.
KW: Praise the Lord! I guess you were surprised by your meteoric rise, huh?
NP: It’s been surprising in the sense that it happened so quickly. But I’d say it’s been more of a blessing than a surprise because I believe it was God’s plan to give me this platform. That’s where my passion comes from, to use it to benefit people, especially people from my community.
KW: Why are these message movies you make so important?
NP: Because the way in which we were disconnected from our continent has left us in this limbo when it comes to identity. Our community lacks a rite of passage that you see in so many other cultures, that celebration where you’re surrounded by other people who look like you explaining to you what it means to be a person of African descent coming of age. When I was young, to have a big nose, big lips or dark skin was the worst. You were the wretched. That was something I not only felt, but I participated in. Unfortunately, I was put down for my big lips and nose, and I would join in teasing others about their darker skin. That’s why I believe the first step we need to take to change our community is in identity, in learning who we are and why we are. In understanding the struggles we went through in Africa, the strength that it took to endure the Middle Passage, and the struggles we’re going through now.
KW: In seeing all the civil rights movies you make, it seems like you’re consciously picking socially-relevant projects.
NP: Absolutely! My community has to come first. How we feel about and what we’re willing to do for our people has to be imbedded in our very bones. When dealing with our people, we don’t have the luxury of treating it like a hobby.
KW: There comes a stage in every black actor’s career where Hollywood forces him to put on a dress and act the fool. How have you been able to avoid that?
NP: Through the grace of God who gave me this opportunity. I have to acknowledge Him as the one that has blessed me, and I put my faith in Him. Will I explore other genres? Definitely, but like I said, my community has to come first. I know this attitude is rare, especially in a capitalist society where we’re encouraged to stay away from the ghetto if you make it out. Sadly, black people disassociate ourselves from the things which make us who we are, identifying them as lesser, or inferior. It’s a form of self hate. So, with reckless abandon, we strive to be like the majority.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would? If so, please answer it.
NP: Wow, that’s a great question! I want young people to ask me if I’m serious. Our young people have been lied to and misled for so long. When I stand on this soapbox, I want young people to ask me that because once they know I’m serious, they’ll be willing to ride with me.
KW: The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?
NP: Yes, sometimes. My mother always tells me, “Fear isn’t from God,” and I believe that. But sometimes, I wonder whether I’ll be able step into the shoes that God has prepared for me.
KW: The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?
NP: Very happy! I’m happy with who I am, but I’m not happy with where we are yet.
KW: The Teri Emerson question: When was the last time you had a good laugh?
NP: [Laughs] Hanging out with [co-star] Lela Rochon about an hour ago. She’s such a character.
KW: “Realtor to the Stars” Jimmy Bayan’s question: Where in L.A. do you live?
NP: I’m actually in the process of moving to Torrance to be closer to my daughter.
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
NP: “Faces at the Bottom of the Well” by Derrick Bell.
KW: The music maven Heather Covington question: What are you listening to on your iPod?
NP: I’m listening to a mixture of Maxwell, Robin Thicke and Alicia Keys.
KW: Speaking of Alicia Keys, Larry Greenberg says, “When I saw you with Alicia Keys in the Secret Life of Bees, I was convinced there was chemistry between you. Was I right, or are you two just great actors?” And he adds, “You can be honest. Don't worry, Sarah [Nate’s wife] isn’t going to read this.”
NP: [LOL] Oh my gosh, that’s hilarious! I think chemistry and great acting go hand-in-hand. We are great actors, so of course there was chemistry. We allowed ourselves the vulnerability to have an authentic relationship in the sense of the characters. We called each other by our characters’ names the entire time we were shooting the film.
KW: Eleanor Boswell-Raine, who is the daughter of the Reverend Hamilton Boswell, one of the real Great Debaters, wants to know whether you’re planning to do anything with Wiley College.
NP: Tell her I just awarded six Nate Parker Scholarships to Wiley students last week when I was there to deliver the keynote speech at the 100 Men of Excellence Leadership Conference.
KW: Laz Lyles asks, what other charity work do you do?
NP: I also deal with a program called Peace for Kids in Compton. And with my mentor, I started a group in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn called Leadership and Literacy through Debate.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
NP: I see possibilities.
KW: The Zane question: Do you have any regrets?
NP: None.
KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
NP: Wow, that’s a deep question… It just hit me. My mother was a single parent. She didn’t have enough money to support us, so we lived in my grandmother’s house with my other aunts and uncles. My earliest memories are, when I was about 3 or 4, of waiting for her to come home from working at BJ’s. She worked double-shifts, so she didn’t get home until about 10 PM at night.
KW: The Mike Pittman question: Who was your best friend as a child?
NP: My best friend was Marcus Johnson. We grew up together. I brought him to college with me. He didn’t have all the opportunities that I had, but I tried to keep him close as a constant reminder of how blessed I’ve been.
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
NP: Lasagna.
KW: The Boris Kodjoe question: What do you consider your biggest accomplishment?
NP: Being a father to my two daughters.
KW: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
NP: To take the steps, and to believe.
KW: How do you want to be remembered?
NP: As a servant.
KW: Well, thanks again, I’m happy that I finally got a chance to chat with you, after interviewing so many of your co-stars: Alicia in The Secret Life of Bees; Jurnee and Denzel in The Great Debaters; and Terrence Howard in Pride.
NP: I’m happy you did, too.
KW: I’m looking forward to speaking with you about Red Tails when it gets released next Fall.
NP: Fantastic, thanks.

Dinner for Schmucks

Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Carell and Company Serve Up Unappetizing Remake

Although Hollywood has a horrible track record when it comes to remakes of foreign films, especially French farces, I nonetheless approached Dinner for Schmucks optimistically and with an open mind. Unfortunately, it turned out to be just the latest in a long line of tone-deaf adaptations which fail to recapture any of the magic of the original, in this case substituting slapstick and a mean-spiritedness where there had once been a certain savoir faire combined with a sublime sense of humor.
Dinner for Schmucks is based on The Dinner Game (1998), a dark comedy about a bunch of rich snobs who get their kicks by seeing who can invite the biggest loser to a weekly dinner party. Directed by Jay Roach (Meet the Parents), the plotline of this fairly-faithful knockoff may superficially sound a lot like the first but, trust me, it has somehow now lost most of the charm.
The unlikely-buddy vehicle co-stars Paul Rudd as the exploiter in need of a blithering idiot and Steve Carell as the unsuspecting stranger who conveniently fits the bill. At the point of departure, we meet Tim Conrad (Rudd), an aspiring executive at Fender Financial, an investment firm specializing in leveraged buyouts. His ruthless boss (Bruce Greenwood) sees a future in the young up-and-comer, but conditions a promotion to partner on his first winning the company’s secret dinner for idiots competition.
Tim is so conflicted about participating that he confides in his girlfriend Julie (Stephanie Szostak) about it. But because she’s a sweet-hearted bohemian who hangs out in the art world, she makes him promise not to have anything to do with such a cruel game being played by stuffy corporate types, especially if he expects her to accept the recent marriage proposal she’s been mulling over.
He agrees, but goes back on his word after literally running into Barry (Carell), a terminally-clumsy IRS employee. Barry’s hobby is taxidermy, and he makes dioramas recreating famous tableaus in his spare time, such as The Last Supper, only substituting stuffed mice for Christ and each of the Apostles. Tim sees the buffoon as a shoo-in to win the idiots contest and can’t resist the urge to invite him over to the apartment to get better acquainted.
Not surprisingly, the tables are soon turned, albeit inadvertently, by hapless Barry who proceeds to make a holy mess of Tim’s life, whether by ruining his relationship with Julie, helping to aggravate his bad back, or elsewhat. While Rudd again proves himself the consummate straight man, ala I Love You, Man and other outings, Carell’s sophomoric antics are an indication that any sophistication simply got lost in the translation of the script into English.
A mediocre sitcom serving up a half-baked, TV dinner. Check please!

Fair (1 star)
Rated PG-13 for profanity, sexuality, crude humor and partial nudity.
Running time: 114 Minutes
Studio: Paramount Pictures

Friday, July 30, 2010

Kam's Kapsules: Weekly Previews That Make Choosing a Film Fun

Kam's Kapsules:
Weekly Previews That Make Choosing a Film Fun
by Kam Williams
For movies opening August 6, 2010


Flipped (PG for mild epithets and mature themes) Puppy love drama about a 2nd grader (Madeline Carroll) whose enduring crush on a cute classmate (Callan McAuliffe) goes unrequited for a half dozen years until the script is flipped when she starts to lose interest just as he finally begins to fall for her. With Rebecca De Mornay, Anthony Edwards and Aidan Quinn.

Middle Men (R for nudity, profanity, graphic sexuality, violence and drug use) Luke Wilson stars in this crime comedy, set in 1995, about an entrepreneur who became filthy rich by helping a couple of shady characters (Giovanni Ribisi and Gabriel Macht) streamline their internet porn business. With James Caan, Terry Crews, Kelsey Grammer, Christopher McDonald, Laura Ramsey and Kevin Pollak.

The Other Guys (PG-13 for profanity, crude humor, sexuality, violence and drug use) Unlikely-buddy comedy about a couple of grounded NYPD detectives, one (Will Ferrell), a dimwit, the other (Mark Wahlberg), a hothead with an itchy trigger-finger, who do their best to measure up to their highly-decorated idols (Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson) when finally assigned street duty again. With Eva Mendes, Paris Hilton, Michael Keaton and Anne Heche.

Step-Up 3-D (PG for profanity) Channing Tatum reprises his lead role in round three of this dance-driven franchise which pits a tight-knit team of New York street dancers against some of the best from the world of hip-hop in a high-stakes showdown. Cast includes Alyson Stoner, Harry Shum, Jr. and Adam G. Sevani.


Brotherhood (Unrated) Out of the closet drama about the forbidden love which blossoms between a couple of Danish army veterans (David Dencik and Thure Lindhardt) when they join a neo-Nazi group against gays. With Nicolas Bro, Morten Holst and Hanne Hedelund. (In Danish with subtitles)

Cairo Time (PG for smoking and mature themes) Romance drama about an American magazine editor (Patricia Clarkson) who embarks on a brief affair with the tall, dark and handsome retired cop (Alexander Siddiq) hired by her diplomat husband (Tom McCamus) to escort her around town until he arrives from Gaza. (In English and Arabic with subtitles)

The Disappearance of Alice Creed (R for nudity, sexuality, violence and pervasive profanity) A ”best laid plans” crime caper about a couple of ex-cons (Eddie Marsan and Martin Compston) whose elaborate scheme to kidnap the daughter (Gemma Arterton) of a rich businessman for ransom goes awry.

Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (Unrated) Flashback flick, set in Lisbon, about a bashful bachelor (Ricardo Trepa) whose life is turned upside-down the day he falls desperately in love with a mysterious stranger (Catarina Wallerstein) sitting in a window across the street. (In Portuguese with subtitles)

Last Letters from Monte Rosa (Unrated) Action-oriented WWII epic about a Nazi unit led by an inept lieutenant (Thomas Bohn) which finds itself ambushed in guerilla attacks by Italian partisans. Cast includes Daniel Asher, CJ Barkus and Nick Day. (In Italian and German with subtitles)

Lebanon (R for nudity, profanity, sexuality and disturbing violence) Claustrophobic Middle East saga revolving around the exploits of the four-man crew (Itay Tiran, Oshri Cohen, Michael Moshonov and Yoav Donat) of an Israeli tank as they reluctantly engage the enemy during the 1982 war with Lebanon. With Zohar Strauss, Dudu Tassa and Ashraf Barhom. (In Hebrew, Arabic, French and English with subtitles)

The Parking Lot Movie (Unrated) Diversity documentary about the colorful characters employed as valets at a parking garage in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Patrik, Age 1.5 (R for profanity and brief sexuality) Mistaken identity comedy about a gay couple (Gustaf Skarsgard and Torkel Petersson) who get the surprise of their lives when the 15 month-old orphan they adopt turns out to be a homophobic 15 year-old (Thomas Ljungman) with a criminal record. (In Swedish with subtitles)

The Sicilian Girl (Unrated) Mob drama, set in Palermo in 1991, recounting the plight of a feisty, if ill-fated, 17 year-old (Veronica D’Agostino) who broke the Mafia’s code of silence following the murder of her father and brother. With Gerard Jugnot, Carmelo Galati and Roberto Bonura. (In Italian with subtitles)

Spring Fever (Unrated) Homoerotic drama about a private detective (Sicheng Chen) who ends up having an affair with the gay lover (Qin Hao) of the man (Wu Wei) whose suspicious wife (Jiang Jiaqi) hired him to trail her husband. (In Mandarin and Cantonese with subtitles)

Twelve (Unrated) Coming-of-age drama about a grieving 17 year-old (Chace Crawford) who drops out of school to sell drugs on Manhattan’s Upper East Side after his mother dies of breast cancer only to have his best friend (Philip Ettinger) end up accused of the brutal murder of his cousin (Jeremy Allen White). Narrated by Kiefer Sutherland (son of Donald), with a supporting cast which includes 50 Cent, Emma Roberts (niece of Julia), Zoe Kravitz (daughter of Lenny) and Rory Culkin (brother of Macaulay).

The Wildest Dream (PG for smoking and mature themes) “Because it is there” bio-pic about George Mallory, a mountain climber who disappeared in 1925 while attempting to become the first mountain climber to scale Everest. The body was discovered by another expedition about 75 years later.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

This Week’s DVD Releases

by Kam Williams

Headline: Top Ten DVD List for August 3rd 2010


Blood Done Sign My Name

The Wiz

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

The Ghost Writer


Open House

The Rosemary Wells Collection

James and the Giant Peach

Finding Bliss

Finding Bliss DVD



DVD Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Good Girl Goes Porn in Steamy Sitcom Coming to DVD


                Aspiring director Jody Balaban (Leelee Sobieski) has just graduated from NYU film school, and is headed west fully expecting to launch a promising Hollywood career. But despite her having won an award for the best student film, she has a hard time getting a studio exec to take a serious look at the script she’s written and is ready to turn into a full-length feature.

In fact, the only directing job she manages to land in L.A. is directing traffic, so, against her better judgment, she decides to accept a position in the porn industry, no, not as an actress, but as the protégé of skin flick director Jeff Drake (Matthew Davis).hooping that she’ll be able to use his facilities afterhours to shoot and edit her own legitimate production.

However, the prudish preppie’s plans go awry once she starts find herself not only falling in love with the boss, but even secretly enjoying salacious scenes from his latest opus, Charlie’s Anals. And, as it turns out, Jeff is also an NYU alum who disappointed his family by not following in his father’s footsteps by becoming a doctor.

Will Jody and Jeff couple-up, or will she develop cold feet over the fact that most folks consider his profession sort of scummy? That is the pivotal question left to be addressed in Finding Bliss, a romantic comedy written and directed by Julie Davis. No stranger to controversy, you may remember Ms. Davis’ previous picture, the equally-iconoclastic Amy’s Orgasm.

My primary issue with this new offering has to do with her casting so many actual porn stars, such as Ron Jeremy and Mr. Marcus. That sort of makes you scratch your head and wonder exactly what type of movie we’re dealing with. Even comedian Jamie Kennedy gets into the act, appearing totally nude, sporting a semi-erect penis for a lingering full-frontal sequence. Yikes!

As unsavory as the setting probably sounds, Finding Bliss is otherwise fairly-conventional and convincing, given how earnestly leads Leelee Sobieski and Matthew Davis throw themselves into their lead roles. They create some credible screen chemistry while Denise Richards and Kristen Johnston turn in decent support performances.

 A steamy sitcom which could have benefitted immeasurably from less carnality in favor of character development. Finding flesh!


Good (2 stars)

Rated R for full frontal nudity, profanity, graphic sexuality and explicit dialogue.

Running time: 96 Minutes

Studio: Phase 4 Films

DVD Extras: Deleted scenes, extended scenes and a theatrical trailer.

Kick-Ass DVD



DVD Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Pint-Sized Superhero Adventure Arrives on DVD


                This Marvel Comics superhero adventure because it revolves around a foul-mouthed, 11 year-old heroine who takes delight in spilling the blood of every last one of her evil adversaries. Plus, other underage characters are depicted engaging in a variety of morally-objectionable activities ranging from premarital sex to smoking Marijuana to sadistic slaughter. So, this movie is appropriately rated R, a clear signal that it’s inappropriate for impressionable young minds. With that fair warning out of the way, let me say that, Kick Ass nevertheless just happens to be the best comic book-to-screen adaptation since The Dark Knight.

Set in New York City, it stars Aaron Jonson as unassuming Dave Lizewski, a nerdy teen whose only special power at the point of departure is being invisible to girls, especially Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca), the cute classmate he has a secret crush on. This low social standing explains why Dave starts fantasizing about morphing into a crime-fighting alter-ego like the superheroes in his comic book collection.

And after being mugged for his lunch money by some bullies in front of bystanders who did nothing, he decides it’s time for somebody to stand up for the neighborhood. Next, fashioning a crude costume out of a scuba diving outfit he buys on eBay, he starts roaming the streets as Kick-Ass.

The masked vigilante eventually develops some decent fighting skills, and becomes an internet sensation when some of his successful exploits are posted on Youtube. That popularity, in turn, inspires a number of others to follow suit, including Damon and Mindy MacReady, a father-daughter team who don masks and costumes as Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz) and Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage).

Hit-Girl is only 11, yet remains perfectly poised disemboweling bandits, having been weaned on an array of deadly weapons by her gun-collecting dad, a disgraced ex-cop with a score to settle with drug kingpin Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong). Between the wanton bloodletting and the incessantly-salty dialogue Kick-Ass is admittedly jaw-dropping, especially since kids are responsible for most of the splatterfest’s chatter and mayhem.

An alternately shocking and comical cross of Death Wish and The Little Rascals not to be missed by mature audiences.


Excellent (4 stars)

Rated R for pervasive profanity and graphic violence, nudity, sexuality and drug use by children.

Running time: 118 Minutes

Studio: Lionsgate Home Entertainment

Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy Combo Pack Extras: Director’s commentary, “The Making of” documentary, a marketing archive, extra content for internet connected game players, a Kick-Ass art gallery, a Kick-Ass comic book featurette, and much more.

Blood Done Sign My Name DVD


DVD Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Riveting, Real-Life, Civil Rights-Era Drama Released on DVD


After serving his country in Vietnam, Henry Marrow (A.C. Sanford) returned to his hometown of Oxford, North Carolina only to be murdered in broad daylight for allegedly leering at a white woman. On May 11, 1970, the 23 year-old African-American veteran left behind a pregnant widow (Milauna Jemai) and two young daughters, while the perpetrators of the heinous crime were found not-guilty by an all-white jury, despite credible testimony of several eyewitnesses who identified the perpetrators as Ku Klux Klan sympathizer Robert Teel (Nick Searcy) and his son.

The outcome of the trial was no surprise, after all, black-white relations hadn’t changed that much in the tiny Southern town since it was founded during the slave days by Samuel Benton, a wealthy, politically-connected, tobacco plantation owner. But what was unexpected was the rioting which erupted in the wake of the verdict when outraged young African-Americans took to the streets in protest.

At that juncture, Marrow’s cousin, a schoolteacher named Ben Chavis (Nate Parker), emerged to play a pivotal role in ensuring that cooler heads prevailed in the black community. He organized a peaceful, 3-day, 50-mile march joined by thousands to the steps of the state capitol in Raleigh where they petitioned the governor for both justice and integration. And that valiant effort, which kickstarted Chavis’ career as a prominent Civil Rights leader, is the subject of Blood Done Sign My Name, a riveting historical drama directed by Jeb Stuart.

This harrowing tale of hope and woe was based on the moving memoir of Tim Tyson (Gattlin Griffith) who was only 10 years-old at the time the events in the story unfolded. Tim’s father (Ricky Schroder) was the pastor of Oxford’s lily-white Methodist church, and what makes the film compelling is the way in which the narration alternates back and forth between the perspectives of little Timmy and the increasingly emboldened Ben Chavis.

A bifurcated bio-pic examining the equally emotionally-charged points-of-view of both black and white observers of the fallout of the same ugly incident.


Excellent (3.5 stars)

Rated PG-13 for profanity, mature themes and intense violence.

Running time: 128 Minutes

Distributor: Image Entertainment

DVD Extras: Interviews and the theatrical trailer.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel

Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Reverential Bio-Pic Successfully Recasts Smut Peddler as Humanitarian

Before seeing this film, I only thought of Hugh Hefner as a purveyor of smut who built an empire on the backs, or should I say breasts, of females by reducing them to sex objects whose sole purpose was to fuel the testosterone-fueled fantasies of teenage boys. While this reverential bio-pic did nothing to disabuse me of the notion that the hedonistic octogenarian remains an inveterate, exploitative male chauvinist, it did a great job of convincing me that he also happened too be an effective advocate of racial equality during the Civil Rights Era.
Thus, much in the way that the recent documentary about frozen-fazed, comedienne Joan Rivers managed to humanize a freak long since dismissed as a cosmetic surgery victim, here we have a notorious womanizer successfully recast as an altruistic humanitarian. Directed by Oscar-winner Brigitte Berman, the final cut of Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel was reportedly much longer before the German-born Oscar-winning filmmaker (for Artie Shaw: Time Is All You’ve Got), was forced to let five probably priceless hours of celluloid hit the cutting floor.
Still, what remains is a cinematic treat chock full of archival footage of Hef in his heyday. The film shows how in 1951 he published the first issue of Playboy with $8,000 borrowed from friends and family. The rest of the front story is history, as the magazine’s circulation skyrocketed, and he proceeded to open Playboy Clubs all over the country.
However, what many might not know is how progressive Hugh was back then politically, such as in hiring writers blacklisted by the McCarthy House Un-American Activities Committee. The first subject of the now legendary Playboy interview was an African-American, Miles Davis, as were many of the entertainers booked to perform on the syndicated TV series Playboy’s Penthouse, which enjoyed a short run in the late Fifties. We also learn that there was no color line at any Playboy Club, and when the owners of the New Orleans outlet violated that understanding by excluding blacks, Hefner took the franchise away from them.
Besides highlighting such altruistic heroics, the film features plenty of shots of Hef surrounded by a bevy of scantily-clad blonde bimbos. But don’t expect much in the way of nudity. There are instead many current-day cameos by some well-known habitués of the Playboy Mansion. Among the many celebrities waxing orgasmic about their visits are rocker Gene Simmons, actor James Caan and comedian Bill Maher. And weighing-in about Hefner’s social activism are NFL great Jim Brown, comedian Dick Gregory folk singer Pete Seeger and the Reverend Jesse Jackson.
A well-deserved tribute to an American icon that manages to turn the nation’s most-famous dirty old man into a champion of racial justice right before your very eyes. Who knew?

Excellent (4 stars)
Rated R for graphic nudity and sexuality.
Running time: 124 Minutes
Studio: Phase 4 Films

Slingshot (FILIPINO)


Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Scary Slumming in the Philippines


                If you’d like to get a load of what life is like in the slums of the Philippines, then you ought to check out Slingshot, as raw and realistic an offering as you’re apt to find onscreen this year. This relentlessly-grim cinematic mosaic was painted by the brilliant Brillante Mendoza whose previous release, Service, was a just as graphic adventure but about the kinky goings-on inside a gay porn theater. Mendoza actually made Slingshot first, but for some reason it is only now being released in the U.S.

The reason could be that the picture doesn’t have much of a plot. It sort of looks like the intrepid filmmaker merely followed a bunch of impoverished ghetto dwellers around with a handheld camera and let them behave, or maybe misbehave, in the dysfunctional and often criminal ways you’d expect to find among unfortunate folks trapped in the ‘hood. Among other things, we see a shoplifter plying his trade, a petty thief snatching a necklace off an unsuspecting pedestrian, a blacktop basketball game that turns into an all-out brawl.

Mendoza He even follows the police as they stage an early morning raid of a Filipino gang’s subterranean hideout where they don’t bother to give a gun moll the chance to get decent before breaking into her bedroom. On another occasion, we meet a woman who gives a new meaning t the term “desperate housewives” when she rushes down to the street to try to retrieve her dentures from the sewer after she accidentally drops them down the drain of her sink.

 The only phony moment in this otherwise authentic production arrives when we see a local politician or religious figure delivering an obviously empty speech or sermon promising his constituents deliverance from their nightmarish existence. What a priceless contrast which needed no explanation!

Hats off to Mendoza for delivering this intimate peek at the intractable state of Third World poverty. My only worry is that a similar fate might be right around the corner for the American Dream as the middle-class disappears, leaving behind only a nation of haves and have-nots.


Very Good (3 stars)


In Filipino and Tagalog with subtitles.

Running time: 86 Minutes

Distributor: Centerstage Productions

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Learning to Stay (BOOK REVIEW)



Learning to Stay:

The 12 Keys

by Stephanie Miller

Dog Ear Publishing

Paperback, $14.95

206 pages

ISBN: 978-160844-409-0


Book Review by Kam Williams


                “Learning to Stay is a book of self-discovery, change, growth and transitions. It’s intended to restore your mind and relationships to wholeness, thus creating harmony and peace within your soul…

                Through personal development and mentorship, I’ve discovered ways to change my limiting beliefs that manifested through undesirable behaviors. .. My passion is to prove that anyone, no matter who you are, can change and be a whole person.”

                -- Excerpted from the Introduction (pgs. 1-3)


Over the past couple of years, I’ve literally been inundated with books offering dating advice to the African-American community. I suppose this cottage industry of love gurus has sprung up in response to a need for more stable relationships, evidenced by the fact that over 80% of black kids are currently being raised in single parent households. Some of the authors have been credentialed therapists, others simply self-appointed survivors of the battle-of-the-sexes now ready to recount how they found fulfillment in a lurid tell-all.

Although I thought I’d sworn off this genre after reviewing umpteen such titles, what I like about Learning to Stay is the fresh perspective it brings to the table. First of all, it was written by a white woman with a bachelor’s in psychology and a graduate degree in counseling. Still, the book is not academic but mostly anecdotal in nature, as Stephanie Miller narrates in engaging fashion an intimate tale about how infidelity almost destroyed her marriage.

Thus, what we have here is a unique case of a shrink herself in crisis.

Furthermore, it was certainly novel to discover that her faithful husband, Chris, is a black man, and that it was she, not him, who cheated. With considerable regret, she recalls how, at the time prior to her affair, she was constantly dogging the brother about being a failure as a breadwinner, despite the fact that he was working his tail off at two different jobs. Adding fuel to the fire was Chris’ equally-sassy mother-in-law who was poisoning his wife’s mind by making destructive statements like, “He is incapable of providing you with a good life.”

Instead of taking the kids and moving in with her mom, Stephanie briefly resorted to adultery. Fortunately, she soon found herself on the road to redemption, this following an intervention by their minister who forced her to confess everything to Chris. Ultimately, their marriage was saved not by conventional counseling methods, but by following a faith-based path featuring a dozen key steps which started with that intervention but also included such spiritual elements as prayer and soul searching.

Today, the Millers are not only blissfully-married but are sharing their secrets of nuptial bliss as certified Marriage Group Facilitators in Colorado where they have a thriving practice. An optimistic opus putting forth the proposition that sound relationships can be forged on the bedrock of faith, introspection and unconditional love.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Professor Charles Ogletree: “The Presumption of Guilt” Interview

with Kam Williams

Headline: Harvard Law Professor Weighs in on Everything from Profiling to Beergate to the Obamas

Charles Ogletree, Jr. was born in Merced, California on December 31, 1952, the eldest of five children to bless the union of migrant farm workers Willie Mae and Charles Ogletree, Sr. A bright child who exhibited an intellectual curiosity from an early age, Charles credits his parents and grandparents for whetting that insatiable thirst for knowledge.
He would matriculate at Stanford University where he earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Political Science before heading to Harvard Law School. Since graduating, he’s enjoyed a storybook career as a public intellectual, between teaching at Harvard and moderating a host of television shows, perhaps most notably, “The State of the Black Union” and “The Fred Friendly Seminars.”
Furthermore, Professor Ogletree has been a frequent guest on everything from Nightline to Frontline to Tavis Smiley to Larry King Live to The Today Show to Good Morning America. As an attorney, he has represented a number of high-profile clients, most recently, fellow Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates of “Beergate” fame.
Currently, Professor Ogletree is the Jesse Climenko Professor of Law at Harvard Law School where he serves as the founding and executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. He is also the author of seven books on race and the law, including his latest, “The Presumption of Guilt,” a sobering deconstruction of the Gates case, specifically, and of racial profiling, in general.
He has received numerous awards and honors, including being named one of the 100 Most Influential Black Americans by Ebony Magazine. In the wake of the Sergeant Crowley-Professor Gates incident, Professor Ogletree continues to serve as special counsel to President Obama and as an advisor on police behavior to both Harvard University and the City of Cambridge.

Kam Williams: Professor Ogletree, I’m honored to have this opportunity.
Charles Ogletree: Thanks. How are you?
KW: Just fine. I have friend who was at Harvard the same time as you who I’ve lost touch with, JJ. Jackson. Do you know him?
CO: Do I know him? He won’t let me call him JJ anymore. He’s Judge William McKinley Jackson now. I see him every time I go to DC.
KW: It’d be nice to be able to touch base with JJ, I mean Judge Jackson again, if you could help make that happen.
CO: No problem, I’ll send him an email right away.
KW: What interested you in writing “The Presumption of Guilt,” a book about Professor Gates’ arrest?
CO: The main thing was that it clearly raised the issues of race and class, and offered the perfect opportunity to talk about our lagging effort to solve the problem of racial profiling, and also to notice that the issue is not restricted to those who find themselves frequently in the criminal justice system. So, I thought that part of the intrigue would be to show how wide an array of black men find themselves presumed guilty when they haven’t committed anything close to a crime.
KW: I loved the second half of the book the best, where you have 100 prominent brothers talk about being profiled. I have personally been subjected to profile stops at least 25 times in my life. How do you feel about the official report on the Gates case which was recently released?
CO: I thought it was incredibly helpful in coming up with suggestions about going forward in terms of reaching out to and engaging the community, and in terms of community policing and examining whether charges like disorderly conduct can be administered in a neutral, professional and dispassionate way. On the other hand, when they said that both Sergeant Crowley and Professor Gates had missed equal opportunities to deescalate the situation, I thought that it was inappropriate and unfair to suggest that the citizen has the same power as the police in a situation like that. The police have the authority, the power and the responsibility to control the situation, because they have the powers of arrest.
KW: What about how Professor Gates handled himself?
CO: Professor Gates was angry and did ask why he was being treated like this. But that was because he had produced two forms of I.D., and had done everything the officer had asked him to do in identifying himself, and yet there were still questions about whether he was who he claimed he was. So, that’s why I think the review has a serious flaw when it equates the actions of Professor Gates with those of Sergeant Crowley.
KW: In his book “The Best Defense” your colleague Alan Dershowitz says that one thing they never teach you in law school is that any cop’s testimony is sacrosanct and treated like Gospel in the courtroom. So, I assume that in the Gates case you were up against the legal system’s inclination to rubber stamp a police officer’s word.

CO: Absolutely! The interesting thing though is that Alan Dershowitz praised my book in a very strong blurb, and wants to do even more about the issue.
KW: One of my editors, Howard Manly of the Bay State Banner, is among the 100 black men whose profiling incidents are quoted in your book. I told him I’d be interviewing you, and he said he’d like to know what you think about the evolution of Barack Obama and his handling of so many crises on a daily basis.
CO: Howard’s a good buddy. What’s interesting about Obama is that he’s had the opportunity to make more judgments not just with his brilliant mind but with his big heart. That’s a good thing, because he has this cerebral quality. In addition, I have seen him grow enormously in both stating his case and learning more about politics, as well as in having this ability to multi-task. To think that with two wars and a financial crisis going on, he still was able to get a nearly $800 billion stimulus package, healthcare, regulatory reform and extensions of unemployment benefits passed, is a sign of what he has done and can do. Far too much of it is overshadowed by the vehement resistance to him, but the reality is that he’s doing a terrific job under trying circumstances.
KW: You taught both Barack and Michelle at Harvard. What were they like as students?
CO: They had very different personalities. Michelle came from a very strong family. Her parents made it possible for her and her brother to go to Princeton. When she came to Harvard, she was a remarkable student who was committed to public service. While here, she worked with Legal Aid, which meant she represented poor clients in civil matters. I was convinced, back in 1985, that she was going to be the first black female to become a U.S. Senator. It was clear that she had that capacity. Barack came after she had already graduated. He was the brightest person in the room, but he always reached out to make sure the voices of other students were heard. He had the balance of not only being great in the classroom, but a pretty impressive game on the basketball court, even though he was skinny with an unorthodox jump shot. And as smart as he was, he was humble, which enabled him to get elected the first black President of the Harvard Law Review by his colleagues. Then, despite his academic success, he wanted to go back to Chicago to work as an organizer, which was extremely helpful to the community. So, he’s had one success after another that’s led him to the right place. It’s been remarkable!
KW: Yale grad Tommy Russell would like to know, how hard was it having such a high-profile case?
CO: It’s actually, more of a strain on the client than the lawyer. I’ve represented everybody from Anita Hill to Tupac Shakur, with so many others in between, that I don’t mind the publicity, provided it doesn’t violate my client’s fundamental rights. What was interesting in this case was that people focused on class more than race, and saw Professor Gates as arrogant and aloof, even though in my view everything that he had to say was protected. The other point is that I hope the case sheds light on how it is within our capacity to solve a problem without regard to race, religion, gender or any other factor.
KW: Attorney Bernadette Beekman asks, “What do you think will be the legacy of Skip Gates?”
CO: As much as he’s accomplished as a MacArthur Genius Fellow, having written over a half-dozen books, having received numerous honorary degrees and other awards, and having the highest title granted any Harvard University Professor, he still will be remembered, unfortunately, for better or worse, for the arrest and the Beer Summit. But if it creates a teachable moment, he has no hesitation to use it as a learning experience for himself and for others who might encounter a similar situation.
KW: Larry Greenberg, son of Third Circuit Federal Judge Morton Greenberg, asks, “Am I now legally required to speak respectfully to a police officer? In other words, can someone be arrested simply for having a bad attitude?”
CO: The reality is much more complicated than that. Speech is one of the most cherished fundamental rights in our society. We have to be careful where we draw the line, even if the words are controversial, obnoxious, offensive or troubling. That’s the reason I wrote the book, so that people understand that they have a First Amendment right to say reasonable things and to be heard, and to act in a defiant way, so long as they don’t put themselves or the police office at harm.
KW: Both children’s book author Irene Smalls and Attorney Patricia Turner asked the same question. “Do you think we are in a post-racial era in the United States?”
CO: We’re not in a post-racial era, because whether you’re the President of the United States, walking along the street, entering a hotel or working in certain places, race still matters. We may have one black man in the White House, but we have one million black men in prison. So, we still have that and many other fundamental problems, like unemployment, mortgage foreclosures and a lack of healthcare. So, my sense is that we all have to fight as diligently as we can to create a post-racial environment. But it’s a little premature to say that we’re there yet, even though it’s a significant shift in the political climate to have the country elect an African-American President.
KW: Rudy Lewis says, “Though class is a corrosive element in America's racial conflict, isn't the heart of the problem a lack of resolution of Blackness and Whiteness among both blacks and whites?”
CO: I think it’s class. And I think class is the understated factor, and that’s why I wrote about it as a key factor. One would hope that if you’ve worked really hard and achieved some semblance of success that you’ve earned the right to be treated with a certain level of dignity and success. But as the book makes clear, you’re going to be judged by the color of your skin, not by the year, make and model of your car or by the suits that you wear. Consequently, it has not changed that people who are successful are still presumed to be a part of the criminal element. It’s as big a problem in 2010, in some respects, as it was decades earlier.
KW: Have you read “The Rage of a Privileged Class” by Ellis Cose?
CO: Absolutely! In fact, I’m one of the people he’s interviewing for Part 2. He’s writing a follow-up about the rage which flows in the wake of the disappointment at the denial of one’s true merit, skills and abilities. About the frustration at having to be twice as good in order to be considered equal to peers that happen to be white.
KW: What was your secret to breaking through barriers to reach the pinnacle of success?
CO: Three things: First, nurturing parents and grandparents who had nothing but an abiding faith that things would get better for their children and grandchildren, and who prayed for that day to happen. Second, a thirst for knowledge that came as a young kid, and being able to read books to think things through and to grow intellectually. And third, remarkable mentors, some known and unknown. And these three keys to my success are only important if I can pass them on not only to my children to everyone I encounter in life.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
CO: Yes, why is this all important for the future? I have three young granddaughters who haven’t encountered the issue of race yet. I really hope that we, as those with the powers to set the tone, don’t poison them by producing racial and even gender stereotypes that make them judge people by the color of their skin rather than as Dr. King said by the content of their color. That has to be our mission, and I’m hoping that we’ll achieve it.
KW: The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?
CO: I’m as happy as can be!
KW: The Teri Emerson question: When was the last time you had a good laugh?
CO: Today. Whenever I have a chance to sit back with folks I might not have seen for awhile, whether 10 days or 30 years, that’s grounds for laughter.
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
CO: I’m actually reading three books right now. The Bridge by David Remnick.

The Audacity to Win by David Plough.

And The Breakthrough by Gwen Ifill.

KW: The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?
CO: Not really, I think that just comes a feeling that whatever’s destined to happen will happen. I’m prepared to fall from success. I’m prepared to die if I have to. The closest thing I have to fear is that those who follow me might not enjoy a full life.
KW: The music maven Heather Covington question: What was the last song you listened to?
CO: John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things. It’s a great song that has a message that’s timeless and timely.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
CO: Hopefulness that if we all work together with a sense of “we” rather than “I” or “me,” we can all move forward.
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
CO: Any type of fish, although my specialty is my mother’s sweet potato pie with her secret ingredients. It’s delicious and very popular.
KW: Care to share those secret ingredients in her recipe?
CO: If I told you, I’d have to kill you. [Chuckles]
KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
CO: Libraries! Just going to libraries, and dreaming that I was somebody else, somewhere else. As the Southern Pacific Railroad rolled through the center of my hometown, I would imagine myself climbing aboard it to travel the world. Childhood dreams of the improbable are the very key to who I am today, so I will always cherish those fantasies.
KW: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
CO: We have to support our troops, but I’d wish for the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
KW: The Tavis Smiley questions. First, how introspective are you?
CO: Very, because you always have to examine who you are and what you are, before you can have the ability and credibility to advise someone else about who they are, who they should be and how to get there. So, there is much more introspection than expression of views.
KW: Second, what do you want your legacy to be?
CO: He was able to enter the door because of the help of others. And he not only left the door open but let a rope down to bring others in to follow his pursuits.
KW: Third, where are you in relation to that legacy at this point in your life?
CO: I’m there, but I’m never satisfied that my work is complete. I don’t think it will be complete until I’ve taken my last breath.
KW: Thanks for a great interview, brother.
CO: Thank you. Take care.


Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Jolie Delivers Again in Action Flicks as CIA Agent-Turned-Manchurian Assassin

Let’s face it, from Tomb Raider (2001) to Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005) to Wanted (2008), Angelina Jolie has always delivered in her high-octane action adventures, and Salt is no exception. This espionage thriller about a Russian mole strategically planted in the U.S. couldn’t be more timely, given the recent arrest of Anna Chapman, the flamboyant NYC realtor deported after confessing to being a Soviet spy.
Art imitates life in this political potboiler revolving around the exploits of Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie), an orphan programmed to kill by the KGB during her childhood. After the Cold War, she emigrated from Moscow to America where she successfully infiltrated the CIA without arousing any suspicions.
At the point of departure, we learn courtesy of flashback that Evelyn is so tough that she never cracked while being water-boarded and beaten by interrogators who disbelieved her claims that she was in North Korea on business. She was subsequently freed only after her fiancé, Michael (August Diehl), pressured the CIA into making a prisoner exchange.
Fast-forward to the present where we find the couple settled down in Washington, DC and planning to celebrate their wedding anniversary. With her cover blown, Evelyn now has a quiet desk job at the Agency, while her arachnologist husband has just published a book about spiders.
But their state of marital bliss is irreversibly altered the day a Russian defector (Daniel Olbrychski) walks into CIA headquarters announcing that he wants to spill the beans about an elaborate plan to destroy the United States that is about to be hatched. He is questioned rather reluctantly by a cynical Agent Salt with help from a couple of equally-skeptical colleagues, Winter (Liev Schreiber) and Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
However, everyone takes Mr. Orlov seriously when he passes a lie detector test and starts sharing some startling information about the existence of a sleeper cell of Manchurian Candidates led by an assassin named Evelyn Salt. At this juncture, the outed double-agent asserts her innocence before bolting from the heavily-fortified building in the first of a series of death-defying escapes.
The chase is on, although it remains unclear whether Evelyn is on the run to clear her name or to follow orders from the Kremlin. As much as its intriguing, painstakingly-established premise might sound like a cross of The Fugitive (1993) and No Way Out (1987), the balance of Salt unfolds less like a cerebral mindbender than an implausible display of acrobatic stunts dependent on patently-preposterous, cartoon physics.
Nonetheless, this bombastic, bells-and-whistles spectacular featuring a fetching, two-fisted femme fatale offers precisely the sort of riveting roller coaster ride that amounts to a very welcome diversion in the midst of a sizzling, summer heat wave.

Very Good (3 stars)
Rated PG-13 for violence and intense action sequences.
In English and Russian with subtitles.
Running time: 99 Minutes
Distributor: Columbia Pictures

Friday, July 23, 2010

Life during Wartime

Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Jewish Angst Aplenty in Todd Solondz Take on Dystiopia

Taking a page from the Coen Brothers, whose semi-autobiographical A Serious Man captured what life was like coming of age in the late Sixties, Todd Solondz, here, serves up a much more twisted take on growing up Jewish in Florida instead of the Midwest. Life during Wartime also revolves around a 12 year-old (Dylan Riley Snider) studying for his bar mitzvah, but the dystopia in which he is immersed is far more bizarre than anything in the Coen’s relatively comical adventure.
The movie is ostensibly a sequel to Solondz’ Happiness (1998), since the three adult sisters at the center of that somber suburban dramedy, Trish, Joy and Helen, are all back, although played by different actresses. In fact, the cast has been totally overhauled, so it might be best to think of this flick as sui generis instead of as an update.
Regardless, Timmy Maplewood and his two siblings (Emma Hinz and Chris Marquette) are being raised by Trish (Allison Janney), a single-mom who has tricked her kids into believing their father is deceased. Truth be told, he’s a convict serving a long prison term for child molestation. As the film unfolds, Trish has just met a nice Jewish man on a blind date that she actually could settle down with. Nebbishy Harvey (Michael Lerner) is refreshingly normal, although he comes with baggage, a highly-neurotic son (Rich Pecci) with a dark view of the world, namely, that, “In the end, China will take over.”
The plot thickens when pedophilic Bill Maplewood is paroled, and returns to town unannounced. Meanwhile, sister Joy (Shirley Henderson) is enduring even more depravity in her dysfunctinal relationship with her African-American husband, Allen (Michael K. Williams), who is not only unemployed but unable to control his sexual impulses. These two bottom out while celebrating their anniversary in a restaurant when he’s slapped by a waitress who recognizes him as a pervert. It doesn’t help that she continues to feel guilt about the suicide of her high school sweetheart (Paul “Pee-wee Herman” Reubens).
Finally, we have scriptwriter sister Helen (Ally Sheedy), a spoiled-rotten narcissist living in the lap of luxury who nonetheless complains about “feeling crushed by the enormity of my success.” For all their weirdness ranging from the eccentric to the antisocial to the criminal to the uncertain, kudos to director Solondz for again crafting an ensemble of recognizable personas so realistic that they border on the palpable.
They don’t make Jews like Jesus anymore!

Excellent (4 stars)
Running time: 98 Minutes
Distributor: IFC Films

The Art of the Steal DVD


DVD Review by Kam Williams


Headline: Non-Profit Doc Recounts Battle over Billion-Dollar Art Collection


                 Starting in the early 20th Century, Dr. Albert C. Barnes (1872-1951) began quietly amassing a priceless art collection which included hundreds of pieces by Van Gogh, Renoir, Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse and other emerging masters at a time well before they became household names in the United States. This enterprising art enthusiast purchased their unappreciated works for a relative pittance during visits to Europe underwritten with money made from a patent he developed for preventing gonorrhea blindness in newborns.

                 In 1922, he opened the Barnes Foundation in suburban Philadelphia, an unpretentious museum/school designed with aspiring young artists and working-class patrons in mind, two groups then generally shunned by the elitist art world. In fact, Barnes himself was dismissed as a dilettante with bad taste by the critics, a snub he would never forget or forgive.

However, the art establishment would belatedly acknowledge Dr. Barnes’ uncanny eye for treasures, and come to covet his collection, when its value grew to over $25 billion. Still, at the end of his life, he would leave his estate to Lincoln University, an unheralded historically black college, instead of passing it on to a mainstream institution likely to turn his unpretentious all-embracing oasis of tolerance into an exclusive enclave.

This bequest ignited a firestorm of controversy, as powerful politicians and mainstream museum directors immediately started scheming to wrest control of the Barnes from the little black college which had been named the beneficiary of its founder’s will. That protracted legal battle is the subject of The Art of the Steal, a fascinating documentary recounting how a combination of racism, arrogance and shady shenanigans enabled a group of entitled crooks in philanthropists’ clothing to pull off a billion-dollar heist, thereby frustrating the last wishes of a true champion of the people.

                 A tragic, true tale exposing America’s ugly, two-tiered system of justice defined by the color line.       


Excellent (4 stars)


Running time: 101 minutes

Studio: IFC Films/MPI Home Video

DVD Extras: Theatrical trailer.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Spoken Word

Film Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Prodigal Son Returns to Roots in Dysfunctional Family Drama


                Cruz Montoya, Jr. (Kuno Becker) is a fixture on the West Coast slam poetry circuit, having cultivated a loyal following of devoted fans over the past three years. The bi-polar, former substance abuser has finally achieved a measure of emotional stability in San Francisco between teaching poetry and the love of a good woman (Persia White) who is also an artist.

                He only belatedly made something of himself after nearly frittering away his entire future selling and using drugs on the streets of Santa Fe. Now, the only hints of his profligate past are revealed by the gritty rhymes he spins about the life of crime which he’d miraculously escaped.

                Unfortunately, the young man’s resolve is about to be put to the test once he gets word that his father (Ruben Blades) is terminally-ill.For, he then instinctively rushes back to New Mexico to lend a helping hand over a Thanksgiving weekend visit that stretches out into an indefinite stay because of his dad’s deteriorating state of health.

                While in town, Cruz suddenly finds himself tempted again by everything from snorting cocaine to working for a mob boss (Miguel Sandoval) to sleeping with the first floozy (Deborah Chavez) who tries to seduce him. These flaws cut a sharp contrast to the straitlaced behavior of his happily-married brother Raymond (Antonio Elias), a chip off the block who had long-since settled down with a respectable gal (Monique Gabriela Cumen).

                Can the Prodigal Son earn the respect of his expiring father before the cancer-stricken codger kicks the bucket? That is the burning question posed by Spoken Word, a slight variation on an age-old, Biblical theme featuring a predominantly Latino ensemble. The picture was directed by Victor Nunez whose Ruby in Paradise won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival.

                This modern morality play is well-enough executed by a capable cast to recommend, especially for heathens unfamiliar with the original tale which ostensibly serves as the source of inspiration. Too bad the transparent plotline ultimately proves predictable.

How do you say déjà vu in Spanish?


Very Good (2.5 stars)


Running time: 116 Minutes

Distributor: Variance Films

Repo Men DVD



DVD Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Grisly Sci-Fi Featuring Forest Whitaker and Jude Law Released n DVD


                Repo Man (1984) was a gritty cult hit about a couple of enforcers in a nasty line of work, namely, repossessing automobiles from folks who’d fallen behind in their car payments. A generation later, we now have Repo Men upping the ante, for this relatively-grisly, sci-fi adventure resurrects the same theme but applies it to the field of healthcare.

Set in the not too distant future, the picture revolves around the gruesome exploits of Jake (Forest Whitaker) and Remy (Jude Law), employees of The Union, a mega medical services corporation. The two best friends have each other’s back on a job which literally calls for them to cut body parts out of the torsos of delinquent clients.

This state of affairs doesn’t sit well with Remy’s wife, Carol (Carice Van Houten), who’s been pressuring her husband to quit, especially because of the example he’s setting for their young son, Peter (Chandler Canterbury). But due to mounting financial responsibilities, Remy can’t resign. Besides, he finds it easy to rationalize chopping hearts out of the chests of deadbeat patients, between the encouragement of his boss, Frank (Live Schreiber), and the healthy enthusiasm of his pal, Jake, for each of their assignments.

The plot thickens when Remy needs a heart transplant himself, and then has trouble meeting the monthly finance charges. And it’s not hard to guess who is assigned to chase him down when the account is 90 days past due.

So unfolds Repo Men, one of those splatter flicks which seemingly celebrates dismemberment as a beautiful blood sport. It’s hard to recall a movie where people were murdered with such glee and utter abandon. A paranoid fantasy of what’s over the horizon if the macabre rumors about the Obamacare death panels are true.


Fair (1 star)

Rated R for profanity, graphic violence, grisly images, sexuality and nudity.

Running time: 111 Minutes

Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

DVD extras: Deleted scenes, feature commentary by the director and scriptwriters, and two featurettes, “Inside the Visual Effects” and “Union Commercials.”